Texas Senate Seat Goes to Trial

Hutchison verdict could set back bid of new Republicans to expand statewide campaign against old-line Democrats

A JURY may choose the next United States Senator from Texas.

At least, that will be the practical impact of the trial of United States Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), state Republicans say. Senator Hutchison, charged with ethics violations while she was the Texas treasurer, goes on trial Monday in Fort Worth.

Hutchison won the June 1993 special election to fill the seat vacated by Lloyd Bentsen, who had joined President Clinton's Cabinet. Her landslide victory shattered records for a Republican candidate and, some in the party crowed, sounded the death knell for the Democrats' historic dominance of Texas.

That was before Hutchison became only the 10th sitting US senator ever to face a felony indictment. Three major Democrats, including US Rep. Michael Andrews of Houston, are running for their party's Senate nomination in the regular Senate election this year.

``Obviously, if [Hutchison] is convicted of a felony, she's very vulnerable,'' says Representative Andrews's spokesman, Scott Sutherland. Especially, he might have added, since the charges against her carry sentences of up to 51 years.

The misdemeanor and four felony indictments charge that Hutchison used state employees and equipment to raise money for her Senate race and then, aware that an investigation was under way, falsified and concealed computer records to hide the political activity.

The trial will last up to eight weeks, prosecutors and defense sources say. That would put the conclusion several weeks after the March 8 state primary has determined the Republican and Democratic candidate slate.

Republicans charge that the case brought by the Democratic district attorney against Hutchison is politically motivated.

``Kay was a controversial person down there,'' says a Hutchison aide who asked for anonymity. ``She represents the new wave of Republicans in Texas who will eventually take over the state. I don't mean to be paranoid, but [Democrats are] looking for a way to nail her and delay that day of reckoning....''

``Absolutely ridiculous,'' responds Claire Dawson-Brown, the director of the public integrity unit in the district attorney's office. For one thing, district attorney Ronnie Earle has in the past prosecuted an attorney general, a treasurer, a comptroller, and a Speaker of the House - all Democrats.

Republicans contend that Mr. Earle prosecutes Republicans and conservative Democrats who are enemies of Gov. Ann Richards. Democrats - including Governor Richards - have done what Hutchison is accused of and not been prosecuted, state Republicans say.

During the trial, the Hutchison aide says, ``It will become quite apparent that Kay has been selectively singled out by a Democratic prosecutor. There will be some skeletons that have been buried brought out in this criminal process.'' However, the aide notes, the senator's defense will not be ``everybody's doing it.'' Rather, it will be that she took the reasonable course of action to correct problems in her office, even if that proved not to be enough.

Ms. Dawson-Brown cautions people against assuming that the facts of the Hutchison case are identical to other cases that were not prosecuted. She says she also plans to ask for a full accounting of why, a few months after Earle raided Hutchison's office, Richards's staff began destroying long distance telephone records promptly. The practice came to light last week.

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